Hunters Strength & Conditioning Blog
It’s always exciting to lay eyes on a new place. There’s a lot of promise. There’s a lot to learn. Last week, I hunted a unit somewhere in Idaho. I’d never been there before. Truth is, I’d never been to Idaho. My first-ever entrance into the state came as our truck wheels rolled across the border from Oregon on Interstate 84. We’d left Pasco, Washington earlier that morning. Rolling high desert stretched from horizon to horizon as we dropped out of the Blue Mountains. It was a step into the unknown. The second one associated with this hunt.
I’d drawn a muzzleloader tag.
Even though I’d started hunting as a boy, I’d never before hunted with a muzzleloader. Even growing up in Pennsylvania with our famous flintlock whitetail season. I spent the late summer and early fall dialing in a load, practicing with the open sights, and practicing with my speed loaders. As we drove, I envisioned capitalizing on that practice as a bull elk stood broadside and unaware of me. I hoped for the chance.
We paralleled winding rivers and drove through timbered canyons. One beautiful stretch of national forest begat the next. Pine forest on steep ridges. This is the type of country I wanted to hunt. I’m confident to 100 yards with my muzzleloader, and I knew we’d need good cover to get that close on elk. I studied the map and took a good look at the unit. But you never can tell what something looks like through a computer screen. We drove on.
Evening set in before we reached our unit. There was just enough light remaining for a quick glass and scout. We turned into a gravel road that my hunting partner noted as a solid entry point into our hunting area. As we made the turn, I saw how challenging the hunt would be. Ahead of us were rolling, sage-covered mountains. Only one peak held a timber patch. The country was wide open. “This will take some doing,” I thought.
We didn’t make it far up the road before we found it blocked. So, we backed out and headed to our hotel to check-in. We’d have to find a different way in the morning.
A friend of my hunting partner turned us on to this tag and this spot. He was kind enough to share some waypoints with us. So, we were up and out early to find our way to one of his glassing waypoints. We got there just before sunrise, and we were treated to one of the most beautiful I’ve yet seen. When the sun rose above the mountains, we started glassing.
“Peter, Elk!” I said. I caught them as they funneled down a ridge and moved in a straight line. They were 2 miles and almost 2,000 feet of elevation away. But it looked like they were moving straight downhill into a drainage we could beat them to. “We gotta go,” I said. We slung on our packs, grabbed our muzzleloaders, and busted ass across the sage as we climbed uphill. As we got closer, we realized I was wrong.
They’d dropped down from the top of the ridge and then moved parallel into timber. We’d hike the two miles and get into the timber. Our hope was they went there to bed for the day.
Once at the top, we swung around the timber to play the wind and hunt our way back uphill. The pines were loaded with sign. We spent a few hours picking it apart while still hunting, then decided to put our eyes on some more country. We hiked back down and hopped back in the truck to drive and glass. The afternoon was elk-less.
I mostly live by the motto you don’t leave critters to find critters, so we headed back to the spot where we found the elk on day one, taking a new path to the timber that would give us more ground to hunt. It had snowed overnight and the air was crisp, great for hiking. But for some reason, I didn’t have any gas. I thought it had to be the altitude. But we were only at about 8,000 feet, and I’d just been that high in Montana and felt fine.
We hiked on and still hunted the timber back to the top, cutting a track and following it for a while but the elk that made it disappeared into open country. I struggled on up the hill. When we reached the top, we decided to hang in the timber so we could glass the open country and be set up for an ambush should some elk move through.
I settled in at the base of a nice, big pine and soon had to stand up. I was too cold to sit down. Then I caught a chill. Peter noticed my standing and fidgeting, he mentioned that we could build a fire. I said I thought I’d be alright, but I wouldn’t be. Soon after, I said we needed to build that fire. There was an old stone fire ring about 50 yards away, we got a fire ripping and dried out our pants. I started to feel a lot better. But peak hours were coming on, so we killed the fire and got back to business. And I immediately caught a chill again.
It was the day after setting the clocks back. We started hunting our way down the mountain around 4:30pm. That gave us about an hour and a half of shooting light. But I was struggling. Each step made the chill worse, and I finally resigned myself to the fact that I was sick. The tickle I felt in my throat on the drive down wasn’t the nothing I dismissed it as.
I toughed it out because I didn’t want to ruin my buddy’s hunt, but I was a mess. With 10 minutes of shooting light left, we hustled down the mountain to the truck. Concern set in. I worried I’d spend the rest of the week in the hotel nursing an illness.
I forced myself to eat and went to bed fully clothed to fight off the chill.
I’d peeled the clothes off during the night. That felt like progress. But I moved timidly as I woke up. Good news, I felt better. I knew, however, I couldn’t push it. I planned to spend the morning in the truck as we drove around and glassed.
It was time to go look for more elk and give up on the ghosts we were chasing in the high timber.
We drove to a few spots and glassed. Peter hopped out and hiked to a high point. He’d return and report he didn’t see anything. We’d been trying to avoid other hunters, although we hadn’t seen all that many. But it was time to check out some of the popular glassing spots we saw other hunters using.
Something feels defeatist about driving down a main highway, pulling off, and glassing. But we did it. At about 1pm, Peter hopped out of the truck and hiked up the drainage we were glassing to get a view from the top. I still wasn’t ready. Hell, I probably shouldn’t have done anything even if I felt ready. I gave it an hour, then I geared up and started hiking up, too.
The wind was good for still hunting up the edge of the timber, so I took it easy to give myself rest and in the case that I hunted my way into an elk. Fresh elk sign was everywhere. I was confident and it felt good to be hunting. I moved slowly, dialed in on my senses, and hunted. Man, was I ever happy.
I reached the top around 4pm and realized that it didn’t offer the glassing opportunity we’d hoped for. Peter and I hiked quickly down and glassed from the truck until dark, hoping to catch elk moving into the timber that we might be able to hunt the following morning. They never came.
There was so much fresh elk sign in that timber that we couldn’t help but come back to watch it the next morning. We parked before the dark blue turned pale and merged with orange. Then we watched and watched until just shy of 9am. There were no elk.
We’d done some more map study and decided to push further up a road we’d driven earlier in the trip. It led us through a narrow stretch of dark timber until it climbed back into high, open ridges covered in sage. The road we wanted to continue on was closed, and there was a truck parked at the gate. I looked at the map and saw two peaks that looked like good glassing knobs. We hiked about a mile to get to a knob that gave us view of an open basin.
It was frigid, single digits. We bundled up and glassed. It wasn’t long before Peter said that he’d found elk.
They were high atop an open mountain, some bedded some feeding. We watched as more emerged from a drainage to the north. And we found the other hunter watching the elk from a perch a couple of miles away from us.
We debated what to do. Should we just watch and see where they move? Should we just go over there? But where was “there”? My head wasn’t fully clear, and I messed up reading the map. I thought they were about three miles away. Peter disagreed. He read the map differently and determined that they were about six miles away on a ridge, close to a place we’d stopped the day before. As more elk made their way into sight, we decided to go. I defaulted to his judgment, and I’m glad that I did. He was right.
Between the hike out, the drive, and the hike in, it took us a little more than two hours to get into the basin. Had the elk stayed put, we would have hiked in from behind them. But we found them across the basin high and in the wide open, the only cover between us being some slight rolls in the topography and a willow bottom. There was also a group of wild horses between us and them that we feared spooking should spooking horses spook the elk.
We sat on the ridge side and pondered, deciding that we’d back out and get on them in the morning. Watching them until dark, faint bull bugles hung in the air and made their way across the basin. I didn’t want to leave. We hiked out with headlamps on and trekking poles pushing us forward.
We started the morning at the glassing knob where we’d spotted the elk the day before. Yes, we could have just gone to the other end of the basin. But we figured getting up high first offered us the best chance of spotting the herd. It took 15 minutes to find them. They were on a sunlit ridge on the north end of the basin. Trusting our guts that they’d feed back across the basin, we hiked back out, hopped in the truck, and hiked back in at the other end of the basin. We found them where we’d left them the night before…all 300 of them.
Cups of coffee warmed our insides while we glassed and deliberated, hoping they’d declare a direction that they wanted to move. They did no such thing. It was time to just get close. We packed up our gear and started covering the mile and a half between us and them. Tall sage and rolls in the earth provided us enough cover until we reached the willow bottom. Then it was a slow stalk up the bottom, bushes, and several hundred yards of open ground between us and the elk.
As the afternoon got on, we hit a pinch point. There were 50 yards of open ground between us and the next stretch of willows. The elk were still about 500 yards away. Should we set up shop and wait to see if they feed into us? Or should we risk it and move across the open ground to get higher because it looks like they might feed that way. We’d risk it.
We moved low and fast through the sage, making it to the next willow cluster. “Did we pull it off?” I asked Peter.
“I don’t think so,” he said. A cow had caught us and started moving away. But we stayed still and quiet. None of the other elk knew what was going on, and eventually, they all calmed down and started feeding back toward us.
We glassed through the willows as the sun dropped toward the western peaks. I watched through my binos as a 6x6 bull lay his head back and bugled. Other bugles rang in the air. I watched as two cows stood on their hind legs and fought. “This is worth the price of admission,” I thought. I still hoped they’d feed into us. And it looked like they would.
“We have 20 minutes,” Peter said to me after checking his watch. The sun was nearly behind the mountains. The elk were still 270 yards away. Those 20 minutes came and went; the elk came no closer. It was time to back out before we ruined the next day’s hunt. Part of me wanted to stay just to be that close to the elk even though I couldn’t shoot. The hunter in me lifted me from my crouch and bid me to walk away.
The next day we’d find that the elk did feed into the willows where we hid. If the sun could have stayed up only a little longer…
The alarm went off and I peeled myself out of bed. Tylenol and adrenaline fought off illness the day before. I had neither of those things early in the morning, and the 10 miles we covered on day 5 married the illness and ached throughout every part of me. “Fuck it, man. It’s the last day,” I said to myself and got up.
Coffee. Breakfast. My last dose of Tylenol. Into the truck.
Tylenol carried me up the climb into the basin but soon wore off. We found the elk high on the open ridge topped with timber, relaxed, feeding and bedded. There was no choice but to get back into the willows and go after them. But I was struggling. We sat to watch which direction they were feeding before we moved into the willows, and I turned on my side and fell asleep. I woke up and carried on.
We made it to the willows, following our same path as they climbed toward the other end of the basin. I dragged my body behind Peter, shadowing him as best I could. Stopping to drink, we sat down and I immediately fell asleep. Peter asked if I wanted to stay there. I declined. “Let’s keep going,” I said. And we did, eventually getting to the spot we’d left the night before. But it didn’t matter. The elk were feeding in the opposite direction.
We let them feed ahead until they got over the crest of a rise, and then we followed. Peter took off at a solid clip. I followed at maybe one mile per hour. I watched him get into the timber and crest the ridge. Minutes later, I made it to the timber and found a spot to rest. Peter popped back over the crest and made his way down to me. “They’re swinging around!” he said.
“Like, back to here?” I asked. “Should we set up at the edge of the timber?”
“No, it looks like they’re heading down to those other willows to drink. I think we can get in front of them.”
I got up and we moved at a good clip toward the drainage the elk were walking down. We spotted them moving downhill toward the willows, and as we were plotting our course to get in front of them, Peter heard a shot. Fuck.
We hiked to the top of the ridge to get a good look. The elk were gone. Like Keyser Soze in the Usual Suspects, gone. But we did see a fella hiking across the flat below, pack on his back, trekking poles digging into the ground. His jeep skylined high on another ridge above the basin. It sure seems like he took a pop shot with a muzzleloader, but who knows? Maybe he was trying to push the elk. There are a lot of maybes. All I know is that at that moment I wanted to fight him. Then I got over it and remembered, that’s the way she goes.
It was 2pm and we had a 5-mile hike back to the truck. We prodded ourselves into the bottom of the basin and climbed back up the other side, reaching the truck at about 3:30pm. There wasn’t much left to do but check our glassing haunts and hope for the best. I was wrecked, but I was willing to keep going.
We found only wild horses and other hunters that seemed to be prepping for the rifle season that opened the next day.
“How ya feeling?” I asked Peter as we drove toward town.
“A little sad. Ya know, I always hate when trips like this end.”
“I get it, man.”
We went to a bar for a burger and a couple of beers. I drank two Budweisers against my better judgment. Damn being sick. It felt right.
The next day we drove back to Washington, happy.